First-ever summit on sports concussions held at the White House

President Obama applauds Victoria Bellucci, a 2014 graduate of Huntingtown High School in Huntingtown, Md., during a May 29 White House summit on concussions. Belluci suffered five concussions playing soccer. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama said Thursday that the culture of American sports must shift to cope with the danger posed by concussions, even as he urged young players to stay on the field.

“We want our kids participating in sports. I’d be much more troubled if young people were shying away from sports,” Obama said to an audience gathered at the White House for the first summit on sports concussions. “As parents, though, we want to keep them safe, and that means we have to have better information.”

The conference featured a panel discussion by experts and new financial commitments by the federal government and private sector to fund research into concussions. The pledges included a $10 million grant by Steve Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants, to the UCLA School of Medicine’s neurosurgery department, to train pediatric neurologists specializing in sports concussions and research how to prevent, diagnose and treat the injuries among young athletes.

The president said “some people’s brains may be more vulnerable to trauma than others are,” and that researchers need to explore that issue and others related to mild brain injuries.

James Gilbert, a doctor with the Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics who treats private patients and serves as a team physician for U.S. Soccer, D.C. United and the Washington Spirit, said in an interview this week that new research suggests there may be a genetic marker for individuals more susceptible to brain trauma.

“That’s a difficult discussion to have with a parent,” Gilbert said. “You’re talking about uncharted waters.”

In his remarks Thursday, Obama said that when he “was young and played football briefly” he might have had a mild concussion “a couple of times” that went undiagnosed.

“We have to change a culture that says, ‘You’ve got to suck it up,’ ” he said.

Former Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, who participated in a panel discussion after the president spoke, said he rehearsed what to tell team officials if they suspected he had suffered a concussion so that he could return to the game without delay. He said he “absolutely” had returned to play after suffering mild concussions, saying, “Just put me back, I’m good.”

The National Football League, which has pledged $130 million to address the risks associated with concussions, has come under fire from some former players for not doing enough to prevent such injuries. In January a federal judge declined to grant preliminary approval of a $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players who had sued over the issue, on the grounds it might be insufficient.

Taylor Twellman, an ESPN analyst and former professional soccer player who suffered a career-ending concussion after colliding with a goalkeeper, said it was worth being alarmist about the risks of head injuries in sports because the stakes are so high.

“We’ve only got one ticket at this,” Twellman said, referring to a person’s brain. “We maybe need to give in to the hysteria a little bit.”

The event also highlighted how young women are now participating in contact sports. Victoria Bellucci, who just finished high school in Huntingtown, Md. and played soccer starting at age 4, introduced Obama by saying she was “unaware of how life would change” by pursuing the game, during which she suffered five concussions.

Obama noted that he often turns to sports when he needs to relax, and that his daughters have participated in basketball, soccer, tennis and track.

“Sports is also just fundamental to who we are as Americans and our culture,” Obama said. “We’re competitive. We’re driven. And sports teach us about teamwork and hard work and what it takes to succeed not just on the field, but in life.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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